Posts Tagged ‘war’

Columbia University SIFA takes on gender violence in the DRC

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Last Monday night I had the opportunity to attend a talk at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs on gender-based violence in the Congo. The assembled panel was an excellent group: Dr. Les Roberts, an Associate Clinical Professor of Population and Family Health at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health; Dr. Susan Bartels, associate faculty at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative; Judy Ericson Anderson, Executive Director of Heal Africa USA; and Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World.

Though the panelists all shared their observations that the incidences of rape and sexual violence does, in general, seem to be decreasing in Congo, it remains a huge problem. And, they emphasized, it’s a problem not just for the women and girls (and men and boys) who are raped, but it’s a problem for the entire country and its prospects for a future that includes long-term peace, stability and development.

Dr. Roberts began the conversation by explaining some of the roots of violence in Congo – the 1994 Rwandan genocide, fleeing Hutu refugees some of whom carried out the genocide, Rwanda’s pursuit of those individuals into Congolese territory, the shifting alliances between rebel groups and the many sovereign nations involved in Congo’s violence throughout the years, and the constant struggle for control of Congo’s vast mineral resources – those that largely fuel the fighting.

I was especially intrigued by some of the findings Dr. Bartels shared of her study of 4,300 women patients who checked into Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, South Kivu, between 2004-2008. All the patients she considered in her study had been victims of sexual violence.

On average, she found that women waited just over 10 months after they were attacked to present at the hospital. A few came much sooner and many came much later, even two or three years, after their rapes. The finding is significant, she explained, because what solutions medicine can offer to rape victims – like post-coital contraception and STD preventatives – are highly time dependent. The longer women wait to get help, the less medicine can do. Thus, it makes a big difference if women are aware of the help available to them.

Other findings she discussed:
-Most women were raped in their homes, not on roads, at their farms, etc. This is important information especially for those whose job is civilian protection, i.e. the UN, and should help them determine what tactics to pursue.
-The majority of attacks included two or more perpetrators. They were gang rapes.
-The risk of pregnancy for women was especially high among those who had been kidnapped and held as sexual slaves. (For some stories about women who endured and survived this horrific experience, see my Christian Science Monitor article: Mothers in Congo get help in raising children of rape)
-More than half of all perpetrators of the rapes were soldiers, about 52 percent, though that number could be, and probably is, much higher.
-All types of rape decreased between 2004-1008.
-However, during the same time period, the number of civilian-perpetrated rapes increased 17-fold. This, Dr. Bartels explained, suggests a “normalization” of rape in Congolese society – a truly worrisome development, to be sure.

Judy Anderson focused on the work Heal Africa has been doing to train counselors throughout North Kivu province to work with women who have been raped. One of their main endeavors has been to inform victims about their rights and the services available to them at places like Heal Africa, a hospital based in Goma that provides fistula repair and other gynecological care (as well as other medical interventions). If women know what help is out there they can access it earlier, a significant development given the findings Dr. Bartels discussed earlier.

More than 3,500 women have been trained as counselors, said Anderson, a woman I have spoken to on several occasions for my pieces about Congo. And thus far, more than 30,000 women have gone through Heal Africa’s counselor’s network.

Donovan wrapped up the comments from panelists by first explaining why an Aids organization spends so much time advocating for an end to sexual violence: “We are of the absolute conviction,” she said, that if there was no more gender-based violence and discrimination, “then Aids would be a virus, not a pandemic.” I found this connection intriguing and was grateful for her insights because it’s not something that I think is obvious to many. I admit that it wasn’t to me.

She then shared several more thoughts about the global problem of sexual violence and how it plays out in Congo specifically. Some of her comments included the following:

-“Nothing,” she said, “is working on a national, global or systemic level to end sexual violence.” She suggested that because all responses to sexual violence are “after-the-fact,” or “reparative,” the job of prevention is not getting done – at least not effectively enough.
-Prevention, she added, is never going to happen (really and thoroughly) if men are in all the decision-making (read: power) positions.
-To that end she called for a moratorium on all further UN declarations, treaties, and resolutions on ending sexual violence until those that are currently in place – and that already codify women’s rights to be included at the highest decision-making levels and peace negotiations, that demand gender equality and the protection of women’s rights – are actually enacted.
-Gender training should be a prerequisite for UN peacekeepers. This is a point I’ve heard from other human rights advocates and I think underscores the need for much more pre-deployment training for troops in general.
-It is also important to have many more women peacekeepers, Donovan said, and the UN should therefore give incentives (monetary) for countries to find and train women to take on these roles. If it is twice as valuable to countries to recruit and train women peacekeepers than men, they will do it, she said.
-A serious economic analysis is required to better understand what it will actually cost to solve the problem of sexual violence.

Several more important points came up during the Q & A session that followed. Dr. Roberts emphasized the need to focus on preventing the exploitation of Congo’s minerals. Anderson and Bartels addressed the importance of including men in the fight against sexual violence.

Most significant to me, however, was one of Donovan’s remarks, what she cautioned might be “unforgivably cynical.” She said that the problem of sexual violence in Congo continues because Black, African women from strategically unimportant countries don’t matter to most.

If she’s right, then I’ll end with a thought and a plea. To me, these women, who are among the most invisible people on the planet, do matter. Their lives and struggles matter and their survival matters. Their courage, as I’ve seen it, is exceptional and their strength is inspiring. It’s why I keep going back to Congo because they have so many stories to tell.

And so my plea is to please make them matter to you too. Visit the sites of the organizations listed here and see what help you can contribute. Or simply read about the Congo here or in other blogs and newspaper and magazines. Then send the stories onto your friends and family. One of biggest challenges is getting more people to be aware of the Congo and the daily challenges the Congolese experience. Until we care, a lot of us, these problems will persist and victims of rape will continue to suffer.

On the air

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

“The Conversation” on KUOW (NPR) Seattle aired our segment about the Congo on Friday and I think it went pretty well. I thoroughly enjoyed the back-and-forth with Lisa and the host, Ross Reynolds, and I hope that for those listening it was informative and perhaps motivational. I mean, that if we were really successful, maybe we will be able to get more and more people interested in learning about, writing about, visiting and helping Congo, especially in finding a way towards a lasting peace in the east.

Here is the link to listen online or go to www.kuow.org/conversation.

Nick Kristof, Zainab Salbi, Lisa Shannon — what a week!

Friday, April 16th, 2010

So I started my week by going to hear Nicholas Kristof, columnist of the New York Times, speak at the Columbia Journalism School. He was the last in a series of speakers that have come throughout the semester to talk about covering conflicts. As I expected, he was thoughtful, articulate and, at times, quite funny. He talked a lot about his new book, “Half the Sky,” which I’ve recently read, and is well worth picking up if you haven’t already.

Among the unnerving facts he spoke about:
-Worldwide, there are more males than females because so many women have been killed because they are female. From the book, here is the stat: “more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine ‘gendercide’ in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.”
-There is a well-documented connection between societies where women are most marginalized and those mired in conflict

I also gained what may at some point be a really useful tip while out reporting — never accept a ride from a photographer or cameraman in a war zone, “they are crazy,” Kristof said. If you want to drive towards the shooting and violence, not away from it, then get in that car. Otherwise, steer clear. Note to self…

After he finished speaking I was able to sneak in among the mob of people trying to talk to him, pass him my card, and tell him “jambo” from Roger and I. Roger, the amazing translator I work with in Congo, has also worked with the New York Times heavy. Mr. Kristof smiled in recognition and seemed surprised and happy at the coincidence.

Then last night, I went to the Strand to hear Lisa Shannon and Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, talk about Congo and Lisa’s new book “A Thousand Sisters: My Journey of Hope into the Worst Place on Earth to be a Woman.” Lisa is the women I mentioned in my previous post whom I met in Congo and who taped the KUOW radio show with me on Monday. The conversation between Lisa and Zainab was, again, thoughtful and compelling. Both women are such an inspiration in taking their passions and dreams and making them reality, all for the sake of improving women’s lives. Yet, what also came out clearly during their hour at The Strand was how much their own lives have improved and taken shape as a result of their work. It’s an important reminder not to waste too much time on jobs etc, that are not fulfilling and motivating.

Lisa talked a lot about the women in her book — her Congolese sisters that she has sponsored through Women for Women. One, Generose, has a particularly moving story. She suffered the loss of several family members (a child and her husband, I think) at the hands of a militia (the FDLR, I think, but don’t recall for sure) who also cut off one of her legs. During Lisa’s last trip to Congo, when we met, she held the first ever Run For Congo Women in Congo. It was on Feb. 28, as I was on my way from Kigali, so I missed the event. Nevertheless, she described it as joyous and mentioned that even Generose, on crutches, walked / ran for about 1/3 of a mile, as much as she could. Later she told Lisa, “if I run, then everyone will know they can do something.” If that’s not a poignant example of how strong and courageous Congolese women are, despite suffering in more atrocious ways than I have ever seen, I don’t know what is.

When Zainab later asked Lisa to comment on the idea that war brings out both the worst and best of humanity, she expanded on what Generose’s comments alluded to — the determination of Congolese women not to be bowed by the violence around them. Even, Lisa said, if militias terrorize, murder, rape, and torture them; loot their villages and burn their homes, Congolese women “can’t be stopped.” The militias do not and cannot win. “There is something in Congolese women that cannot be touched,” Lisa said.

I had the chance after the talk to go out with Lisa and it was such a treat to talk with her again and commiserate about Congo — what is so difficult there, inspiring there, what makes us want to continue going back. I hope that this last trip won’t be the only time we overlap along the shores of Lake Kivu.

A radio show!

Monday, April 12th, 2010

So I just got off the phone from a taping for “the Conversation” with Ross Reynolds on KUOW, Seattle’s NPR station. I was on with Lisa Shannon, founder of Run for Congo Women and author of her new book “A Thousand Sisters: My Journey of Hope into the Worst Place on Earth to be a Woman.” Her Web site is: http://athousandsisters.com/. We were there to talk with Mr. Reynolds about the Congo and our experiences there. The show is scheduled to air this Friday, April 16, between 12pm and 1 pm PST. However, depending on the news cycle it could be moved to a different time. If you are interested, I am sure you can listen live online. The Web site is: http://www.kuow.org/conversation/

The show taping today was a chance to reflect on some of what I have seen. I don’t think I nearly conveyed all of that, maybe a small bit if I was successful, and I do hope that I sounded articulate. It’s so funny how such a thing can be so nerve-wracking even when no one can see you and you know they’ll edit it all to make it sound coherent! Or at least I hope! And while talking about some of the reporting I did, I failed to mention that a piece about children born of rape will be published in the Christian Science Monitor. As soon as it’s done I will hopefully be able to send KUOW the link to post on their site, but I am not sure of our pub date yet. I feel terrible for forgetting! Well, hopefully there will be more opportunities.

Lisa was great on the show. It was so fun to reconnect with her this way. We met while at the Hotel Orchid in Bukavu. Our trips overlapped by a few days. Her book has just come out and I highly recommend it. It is full of thoughtful insights and well-wrought observations. Reading it has made me think so much about my own experiences in Congo — a place that is a jumble of complicated feelings, the more so the longer I am home and thinking about it. Sometimes I am inspired there, I am often humbled — especially by the courage and strength of the women I have met — and I am buoyed by the ability of people who have suffered so much to still be so generous to others. Yet I have been maddened, frustrated, angry, and hopeless too. It is a place that gets under your skin. It is a place I will continue to go back to.

I have been stunned, really, by how much it is on my mind now. I think it is because, of course, I am still finishing stories now that I reported there, so I am busy rifling through my notebooks and remembering my interviews. Yet it also because now I have the time and the space to let it in. The result is not always easy. As a journalist I struggle, and I probably always will, with needing to get on the inside to tell a good story but to simultaneously remain on the outside in order to tell a true and fair story. At times it frustrates me, it saddens me, not to be able to do more than just write. I hope that one day this effort will feel like enough.

Anyway, catch the show if you can. And look out for more stories from Congo in the Christian Science Monitor and Women’s eNews!

The International Crisis Group on Congo

Friday, April 9th, 2010

The International Crisis Group released an interesting, if a bit depressing, briefing on the Congo yesterday. Here is the link, though I will also paste in the overview below. They have the authority to say what many people, myself included, often think about — that there is a long long way to go in Congo before a real, sustainable peace and a lasting, reliably democratic government is in place. I do hope that their analysis makes a difference in the work on the ground there.

Congo: A Stalled Democratic Agenda

Africa Briefing Nº73
8 April 2010

To read the full report in French, please click here.

OVERVIEW

The consolidation of democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is stalled on almost all fronts, and the Congolese regime remains fragile. When Joseph Kabila became the first democratically elected president in 2006, the international community celebrated the election as a milestone in the peace process, but today checks and balances barely exist, as the president’s office has curtailed the powers of the government, parliament and judiciary. Civil liberties are regularly threatened, and key institutional reforms – decentralisation and the security sector – have made no significant progress. Unless the Congolese political authorities give new impetus to democratic transformation and institutional consolidation in 2010, the gains made during the transition could be at risk and the international investment in the giant country’s stabilisation wasted. The Congo’s international partners must place democratisation and institutional reform at the centre of their dialogue with Kabila’s government and link the provision of development aid to their progress.

In 2006, for the first time in the Congo’s history, its people chose their national and regional leaders through credible elections. A year before, the most democratic constitution yet had been adopted by referendum, entrenching the apparent determination to radically change political and economic governance and recognise democratic aspirations that had been unfulfilled since independence. Implementation of this new constitution demanded fundamental institutional reforms, such as decentralisation and a complete overhaul of the security sector. This political project, whose origins lay in the negotiations at Sun City to end years of war, as well as the national conference of the early 1990s, clearly linked the return of lasting peace to the principle of a balance of power between central government and the provinces and the establishment of genuine checks and balances at both levels.

Kabila won a five-year term by embracing this vision during the election campaign. He promised to fix a collapsed state and fight corruption; elaborated a program to rebuild the Congo through five strategic priorities – infrastructure, health, education, housing and employment; and pledged further democratisation, notably by respecting the rule of law and holding local elections. Nearly four years on, however, the record is abysmal. His presidency is seeking to impose its power on all branches of the state and maintain parallel networks of decision-making.

The regime has undermined the independence of the judicial branch by running an anti-corruption campaign that is politically biased. It has used money and coercion to eliminate challenges to its authority and to fight against the local rebellions that have happened since 2006. Kabila is contemplating amending the constitution on the pretext of addressing difficulties in implementing decentralisation. Any constitutional amendment aiming at concentrating more power at the level of the presidency or controlling dissenting voices, however, would pose a threat to already weakened mechanisms of checks and balances. It is unlikely local elections will be held before the end of parliament’s first term, putting the prospect of general elections in 2011 at risk.

Despite this authoritarian trend, the international community which has invested so much in the Congo’s peace process has remained mostly silent. The Congolese authorities demonstrate an extreme sensitivity to any remaining indications of international tutelage. Invoking sovereignty, the Congolese government has called for the withdrawal of the UN mission (MONUC) to be completed by summer 2011 and has announced that it will take charge of organising the general elections. It is simultaneously engaged in negotiations to secure massive debt relief before the 50th anniversary of independence on 30 June 2010. Given its size and its tense internal politics, the DRC is prone to local rebellions fuelled by domestic discontent that can easily get out of control. In this context, a new international strategy is needed to support democratic consolidation and to prevent new risks of destabilisation.

Furthering the democratic agenda is vital to the Congo’s mid- and long-term stabilisation. Creating new momentum to reverse current trends will require that institutional reforms and legislative programs are not considered merely as technical processes, but as tests of the government’s political will to improve governance and as a central part of any dialogue on additional aid. The following steps are necessary to restart democratic transformation:

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Beginning to prepare for the 2011 general elections now. The long-awaited National Independent Electoral Commission should be established and a proper budget should be allocated at the same time. In the meantime, the current electoral authorities should present a clear operational plan for those elections as a basis for discussion with donors.
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Institutionalising the fight against corruption. An anti-corruption strategy based on civil society’s efforts and other post-conflict countries’ experiences should be elaborated and implemented by newly-created independent agencies.
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Guaranteeing fundamental rights through law and institutions. Parliament should create the National Human Rights Commission as outlined in the constitution, review the penal code to comply with the UN Convention against Torture, limit the powers of the national intelligence agency and pass a law protecting journalists, human rights activists and victims and witnesses of human rights abuses.
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Harmonising the decentralisation process with the capacity building and budgetary allocations of the provinces and local governments. The government should set up a commission of national and international experts to establish openly when and how to hold local elections. In the event these elections cannot be held before the 2011 general elections, a new timeframe should be elaborated.
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Establishing a clear partnership between the international community and the Congolese government on security sector reform that aims to add a political dimension to the current technical approach. Benchmarks should be set to measure progress, and conditionality should be determined.
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Connecting development aid and democratic governance. Given the major role played by donors in the Congo, they should use their financial and political leverage to support the process of building democratic institutions and seek to engage the country’s new Asian partners in this strategy, who would benefit equally from a more stable and effective regime with which to cooperate and do business.